You are worried about your thirteen year old. Her grades have fallen, she hates school. Your mother says ground her until they improve, her other parent says make a deal to pay her five dollars for every  B or above on a test. The guidance counselor says grades often fall off during middle school. Your pediatrician suggests a neurology consult. Your best friend suggests vitamin supplements. What to do …

Or, the worry is about a three year old foster child who comes to you with a history of abuse. He has been with you for three months and seems happy, but he is not potty trained other than to go into a corner when soiling his diaper, then he runs from you if you want to change it. The caseworker wants you do use a behavior chart. Your mother-in-law says don’t put pants on him and if he heads for the corner, carry him to the potty, hold him there, talk soothingly, but insist he stay until the job is done, then reward  him after he goes. Your best friend says, the boy is too disturbed and you should return him before you get more attached. Everyone agrees his behavior is related to being hurt whenever he did soil his diaper. He has some cigarette burns near his anus. Your spouse and many others say be patient. You want to be patient, but you also would like to end the battles and see him off to nursery school.


Parents are free game for advice givers. Every parent has an opinion about the right way to parent. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, the woman in the street—they are all ready to tell you how to parent. Post a question on the internet asking for advice and not only will you get lots of people telling you what to do, most of the advice will be contradictory.  Then there are the experts. Add some letters like PhD or MD or LCSW, or titles like teacher, preacher to someone’s role in life and they feel free to share knowledge. I am a good example, but at least as a parent and foster parent, I have become somewhat expert at winnowing out the good from the bad.  Here are my tips:

  1. Parenting is an art and very little of the advice handed out has stood the test of robust examination by the experts. That said, there is good advice out there, but you need to see yourself as the experimenter and researcher. You know you and you know your child better than any other.
  2. When it comes to advice about any thing, I like the ideas of Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead’s husband and an anthropologist, whose fame was over ridden by hers. Bateson preached “The map is not the territory, but the more varied maps, the more like the territory will be accurately mapped.”  Not his exact words, but good enough.
  3. Part of deciding whether advice applies to you depends on where the advice giver is coming from.  What maps has the other created?  I get into quarrels with the attachment experts because they are so in love with the idea that bonding is everything and failed bonding is the problem, but to the extent that they rule out other points of view. Bonding is essential, but not always sufficient. Biological problems and cultural dictatorships can over-ride the closest of parental bonds.
  4. Know yourself and your limitations. Behavior charts might work, but if you are a parent of three or four children working at more than one job, trying to keep such charts might be the straw that collapses your back.
  5. Advice from experienced parents is often more useful than advice from professionals. There are dangers, however. One danger remains if a brain challenge or difference is operating. Another involves extremes of either Tough Love, Soft Love, faith cures, diets, anti-medication, and any number of other one-way approaches. A less common danger comes if the person is a paid parent advocate. These have become popular in the past ten years. I love all parent advocates, but I want to know who is paying them. The school? Then they may be biased against your child? The child welfare people, they have a nose for abuse. Just know who is paying a parent advocate and keep that information in mind when dealing with one. My personal preference are for parent advocates paid by the mental health system, but they can also have strong bias.
  1. Know when to seek professional help. If the things that seem to work for most doesn’t work for your child, something more may be needed.  A prime example are bright kids slowly but surely turning against school. This might be a very bright kid not sufficiently challenged in his current school.  It might also indicate a learning disability. I am an avid and a fast reader, but I also have what is called dysgraphia and dyscalulia. Determining what goes on requires a good psychological evaluation and generally from a psychologist who specializes in learning problems. My life got better when computers and caluculators helped solve some of my difficulties. Life also got better when I realized it was a brain glitch and not general stupidity.
  2. Be very careful about who you go to for professional help. A family doctor or pediatrician when asked for advice usually does one  of two things: offers a “wait and see” approach or quickly prescribes a psychotropic medication. In my revision of When Good Kids Do Bad Things, I fully revised the chapter on ‘When More is Needed’, which deals with seeking professional help.
  3. Know that if there is abuse in the home or elsewhere—beatings that leave marks, sexual abuse, no love or affection shown—more is needed, but the abuse has to be stopped and the resulting traumatization of the child and the parent dealt with.
  4. You cannot help a child if you do not keep yourself physically and mentally healthy.
  5. Parents do not control all, do your best, seek advice from compentent sources of help when trouble looms and hope for the best, don’t engage in self or other blame.  The Blame Game sometimes provides short term relief ,but helps no one in the long run.

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